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Starcraft, Blizzard, 1998

Starcraft is the latest entry in the real-time strategy (RTS) genre, and it takes its storyline quite seriously. The plot, the backstory, and the characters all matter -- in the way the game is played, in the way we are kept interested, and in making the experience worth something to remember. The game is highly playable, but its interface is somewhat primitive and the graphics are dated.

Three main campaigns make up the heart of Starcraft, and Blizzard was completely correct in recommending that you play them in a certain order, namely: Terran, Zerg, Protoss. These three races are vastly different, and their goals differ widely as well. Furthermore, the campaigns get progressively harder, to the point where the Protoss levels are nearly impossible. But the Terran campaign is easy, and makes a point of training the novice and does so effectively and quickly.

A quick summary of each race. Terrans have left or lost their homeworld many years ago and begun their own Confederacy of planets in a distant section of the galaxy. They build vehicles or robots and, in a neat touch, their buildings have the ability to move around, albeit slowly. The Zerg incorporate the genes of various other races they conquer and are directed by an Overmind. Their buildings are all organic and have to be rooted in a carpet of "living bio-matter" called the Creep. Their reproductive cycle and their general appearance is pretty disgusting, as well as frightening. The Protoss are the oldest, longest-lived race, and rely on psionic energy to power their buildings and weapons. They have many robotic fighting machines and all of their buildings and units are expensive. The Terrans and the Zerg remind me of Heinlein's work (more on that in a minute), with a bit of Giger mixed in for the Zerg (although they are much more colourful than anything that has emanated from Giger's mind). The Protoss are very Roman, a kind of retro high-tech faux-classical look.

The Terran story is interesting because of the people. The involuted politics of the Confederacy consume these people's lives: Raynor the fighting man, Kerrigan the former Ghost (a highly trained assassin whose mind has undergone many experiments), Duke the general in the Confederacy, and Mengsk the rebel. You end up fighting the Confederacy many times, on the side of Mengsk, but Mengsk is not what he appears, and the fate of Kerrigan at the end of the Terran campaign is saddening. The Zerg campaign is a little less gripping, and perhaps deliberately so because it later turns out they are the villains of the piece. The first few levels you have to protect a Chrysalis -- what will this Chrysalis hatch into? Later the Overmind has some arcane reason for wanting to burrow in the surface of the Protoss homeworld, but as I said, the Zerg's story was not my favourite. The Protoss have another rebellion-type story, with accompanying complexities of plot: Aldaris is the Judicator (who is a member of the Conclave) and Tassadar is the Templar. Tassadar is on the side of the Dark Templar, who he knows are the only ones who can defeat the Overmind. But the Dark Templar are anathema to the Conclave, and it's these Protoss vs. Protoss levels that are probably the toughest in the game.

Blizzard made some excellent choices in the way it implemented the story, and I applaud the choice to put everything on one CD-ROM. They managed to do this because of two things. The FMV (full motion video) cutscenes are not really video at all, but computer generated, like Toy Story. The visuals in these cutscenes are correspondingly funny- or doughy-looking at times, but because Blizzard (in another neatly judged choice) have only included a few cutscenes in the whole game, the ones that we saw made more of an impact. Many of these cutscenes are distant off-shoots of the main story, sometimes quite funny. The main story of the game is carried by the talking heads of the briefings and the various in-game messages. The game interface has a small square where you see the unit portrait of whichever unit you are currently ordering around. Blizzard chose to use those portraits (and that size of portraits) to tell the story, and it works marvellously. It gives the game an astonishing continuity, one that can be sabotaged by the change between the higher quality of the cutscenes and then the lower quality in-game graphics. The voice acting was good overall.

Starcraft plays much like Warcraft II or any other game based on resource gathering. There are crystals to harvest, and vespene gas to pump out of vents. Each race has a limit on the number of units, so you have to plan ahead in building the appropriate thing (Supply Depots for Terrans, Overlords for Zerg, Psi Pylons for Protoss). Unit production is unique to each race, and it was nice to see some variation from the typical RTS construction strategies in the Zerg and the Protoss. Blizzard also retains its fondness for making you pay for expensive upgrades (and the later levels are harder because the enemy starts out with very advanced units). Each race also has one or two units that really force micro-management on the player. The Protoss Reavers only have room for 5 shots of ammo (10 after an upgrade) and you have to manually select the Reaver and buy more ammo for it when it's out. Ridiculous! Blizzard should have made the Reaver's ammo less powerful in a more sensible purchasing scheme. And, like Warcraft II, there are a couple of units that have some kind of advanced attack. They need to build up their energy slowly, and then attack with extreme care. I found these units frustrating in a real-time game, and the computer, even with the game's pace slowed down all the way, at a real advantage in being able to give unlimited orders simultaneously. When I have 200 units, keeping track of energy levels and ammo levels and upgrades takes time, which doesn't necessarily bother me. But the computer does that instantaneously, and there's no pause function that lets the gamer give orders while the game is stopped (which is essentially what the computer does).

Starcraft offers multiplayer options, as well as a number of custom levels to play, which were varied, but not as compelling as the levels set in the strong story of the main campaigns. The level designer, StarEdit, is also included, and it's easy to use, extremely flexible, and very intuitive. Starcraft's primitive graphics and terrain probably made this tool easier for the novice to use, but that's a dubious trade-off.

The people at Blizzard are clearly enamoured of science fiction, and there were many little pop culture references in the game and in the manual. In the little section describing the Zerg, we find out they are worried about "purity of essence" (which is from Dr. Strangelove). A number of Douglas Adams allusions are sprinkled throughout. At the end of the manual, there is a long section, "Thanks To," that makes for interesting reading. Kubrick, Lucas, Sagan, and Roddenberry are all mentioned, as is James Cameron (many of the Zerg sequences are highly reminiscent -- to put it kindly -- of Aliens). Most telling is the thanks to Heinlein. Starship Troopers would be the main inspiration, and see my review of that book for my opinion of Heinlein's militarism. This kind of computer game almost necessitates a kind of militaristic structure, considering that the point of the game is to go out and kill the other side. Blizzard makes the storyline of their game far more interesting than anything found in Starship Troopers, but the inherent, forced conflict that makes up every level still remains. RTS games seem stuck beyond hope in violence and militarism. Starcraft probably goes the furthest in using an interesting story to get beyond the killing and carnage.


First posted: July 27, 1998; Last modified: February 20, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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